From a school play in Ballymena to a galaxy far, far away
William John Neeson was born into a working class Catholic family in Ballymena, County Antrim, on June 7, 1952. One of four children, and the only boy, his early ambition to become a butcher ended at the age of 11, when his English teacher gave him the lead in a school play.
At the age of nine Neeson also began a successful career in amateur boxing at All Saints’ Youth Club. A broken nose in his teenage years contributed to his distinctive onstage presence.
At 17, Neeson joined Ballymena’s Slemish Players and debuted in Philadelphia, Here I Come. He received the Best Actor award at the prestigious Larne Drama Festival for his performance.
After completing only two terms at Queen’s University of Belfast, Neeson undertook a succession of jobs, before attempting a teacher-training course in Newcastle. Once more, he failed to complete and returned to his native Ballymena.
In Belfast Neeson successfully auditioned for the Lyric Players, and had his first taste of movie stardom in 1973, playing Jesus in Pilgrim’s Progress. In 1977 he joined the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was discovered by Hollywood director John Boorman, who offered him the part of Sir Gawain in Excalibur.
Neeson moved to Hollywood in 1987, but despite appearing in numerous small films to critical acclaim, wider recognition proved elusive. However, Neeson’s big break would prove to be spectacular. While appearing on Broadway, Neeson was spotted by Steven Spielberg and offered the role of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List. The film was a huge success, publicly and critically, and his mesmerising performance landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
His credibility as a leading man firmly established, Neeson went on to star in the title roles in Michael Collins and Rob Roy. It was, however, his role as Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace that established his legendary status.
An intensely private man, Neeson married actress Natasha Richardson in 1994 after co-starring in the Broadway play, Anna Christie.
Now based in New York, Neeson maintains a difficult relationship with the town of his birth. Having criticised the predominantly Protestant Ballymena in the international press, he refused to accept the freedom of the borough in March 2000. Nevertheless, he maintains he is exceptionally proud of his upbringing, and several buildings in the town bear his name.
Having played the likes of Oscar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey - the eminent American scientist and sex therapist - in previous biopics, Neeson shouldn't be fazed by his next role. Watch out for the big Ballymena man donning his top hat in Spielberg's epic Lincoln, due out in 2009.